How to Read WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files


A week after WikiLeaks began releasing classified military files — known as Detainee Assessment Briefs (DABs) — relating to the majority of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo since the prison opened in January 2002, I am reassured that the prison, its remaining inhabitants and its back story have reemerged so forcefully into the consciousness of the general public. Over the last few months, in particular, it had become apparent, to those of us who still cared about Guantánamo, that President Obama’s stated mission to close the prison had ended ignominiously, and that the prison’s supporters in the US (particularly in Congress and the judiciary) had won a resounding victory, closing off every avenue that might have led to the release of all but a few of the remaining 172 prisoners.

However, although it’s reassuring to see renewed interest in Guantánamo — and to see a decent amount of insightful reporting about the crimes and distortions of the Bush administration in the reporting of WikiLeaks’ media partners in the US and throughout Europe — I’m not yet persuaded that the release of these documents has caused significant enough ripples in the US to effect any kind of change to the existing policies.

This may not be possible — given the current deplorable state of US politics, and the New York Times‘ damaging introduction to its own unofficial release of the WikiLeaks documents last week — and it may be, as I have been suggesting all year, that the only answer to the appalling inertia regarding Guantánamo is for the international community, including the UN, to reassert the kind of criticism to which George W. Bush was particularly subjected in his second term in office.

With more articles by WikiLeaks’ media partners to be published in the weeks to come, and with my own detailed analyses of some of the documents also forthcoming, the story is far from over, but for now, as I continue to release links to interviews in which I discuss the importance of the released documents — and the particular importance of recognizing that the supposed intelligence in the files is in fact thoroughly infected with the unreliable testimony of tortured, coerced and bribed prisoners — I’m posting below the notes I wrote for WikiLeaks explaining how to read and understand the different sections in the documents, and also the introductions I wrote for a handful of briefing documents that were also made available last week by WikiLeaks.

Of particular interest, I hope, is my observation, under “5. Capture Information,” that the “Reasons for Transfer” included in the documents, which have been repeatedly cited by media outlets as an explanation of why the prisoners were transferred to Guantánamo, are, in fact, lies that were grafted onto the prisoners’ files after their arrival at Guantánamo. This is because, contrary to the impression gven in the files, no significant screening process took place before the prisoners’ transfer. As a senior interrogator who worked in Afghanistan explained in a book that he wrote about his experiences, every prisoner who ended up in US custody had to be sent to Guantánamo, even though the majority were not even seized by US forces, but were seized by their Afghan and Pakistani allies at a time when substantial bounty payments for “al-Qaeda and Taliban suspects” were widespread.

No exceptions to these rules were allowed, which explains why Maj. Gen. Michael Dunlavey, an early commander at the prison, complained about the large number of “Mickey Mouse prisoners” that he was expected to deal with, and the lack of screening also helps to explain why Marine Brig. Gen. Mike Lehnert, the prison’s first commander, told the BBC in February 2002 (before he was silenced) that “A large number [of the prisoners] claim to be Taliban, a smaller number we have been able to confirm as al-Qaeda, and a rather large number in the middle we have not been able to determine their status. Many of the detainees are not forthcoming. Many have been interviewed as many as four times, each time providing a different name and different information.”

How to Read WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files

The nearly 800 documents in WikiLeaks’ latest release of classified US documents are memoranda from Joint Task Force Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO), the combined force in charge of the US “War on Terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to US Southern Command, in Miami, Florida, regarding the disposition of the prisoners.

Written between 2002 and 2008, the memoranda were all marked as “secret,” and their subject was whether to continue holding a prisoner, or whether to recommend his release (described as his “transfer” — to the custody of his own government, or that of some other government). They were obviously not conclusive in and of themselves, as final decisions about the disposition of prisoners were taken at a higher level, but they are very significant, as they represent not only the opinions of JTF-GTMO, but also the Criminal Investigation Task Force, created by the Department of Defense to conduct interrogations in the “War on Terror,” and the BSCTs, the behavioral science teams consisting of psychologists who had a major say in the “exploitation” of prisoners in interrogation.

Under the heading, “JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment,” the memos generally contain nine sections, describing the prisoners as follows, although the earlier examples, especially those dealing with prisoners released — or recommended for release — between 2002 and 2004, may have less detailed analyses than the following:

1. Personal information

Each prisoner is identified by name, by aliases, which the US claims to have identified, by place and date of birth, by citizenship, and by Internment Serial Number (ISN). These long lists of numbers and letters — e.g. US9YM-000027DP — are used to identify the prisoners in Guantánamo, helping to dehumanize them, as intended, by doing away with their names. The most significant section is the number towards the end, which is generally shortened, so that the example above would be known as ISN 027. In the files, the prisoners are identified by nationality, with 47 countries in total listed alphabetically, from “az” for Afghanistan to “ym” for Yemen.

2. Health

This section describes whether or not the prisoner in question has mental health issues and/or physical health issues. Many are judged to be in good health, but there are some shocking examples of prisoners with severe mental and/or physical problems.

3. JTF-GTMO Assessment

a. Under “Recommendation,” the Task Force explains whether a prisoner should continue to be held, or should be released.

b. Under “Executive Summary,” the Task Force briefly explains its reasoning, and, in more recent cases, also explains whether the prisoner is a low, medium or high risk as a threat to the US and its allies and as a threat in detention (i.e. based on their behavior in Guantánamo), and also whether they are regarded as of low, medium or high intelligence value.

c. Under “Summary of Changes,” the Task Force explains whether there has been any change in the information provided since the last appraisal (generally, the prisoners are appraised on an annual basis).

4. Detainee’s Account of Events

Based on the prisoners’ own testimony, this section puts together an account of their history, and how they came to be seized, in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere, based on their own words.

5. Capture Information

This section explains how and where the prisoners were seized, and is followed by a description of their possessions at the time of capture, the date of their transfer to Guantánamo, and, spuriously, “Reasons for Transfer to JTF-GTMO,” which lists alleged reasons for the prisoners’ transfer, such as knowledge of certain topics for exploitation through interrogation. The reason that this is unconvincing is because, as former interrogator Chris Mackey (a pseudonym) explained in his book The Interrogators, the US high command, based in Camp Doha, Kuwait, stipulated that every prisoner who ended up in US custody had to be transferred to Guantánamo — and that there were no exceptions; in other words, the “Reasons for Transfer” were grafted on afterwards, as an attempt to justify the largely random rounding-up of prisoners.

6. Evaluation of Detainee’s Account

In this section, the Task Force analyzes whether or not they find the prisoners’ accounts convincing.

7. Detainee Threat

This section is the most significant from the point of view of the supposed intelligence used to justify the detention of prisoners. After “Assessment,” which reiterates the conclusion at 3b, the main section, “Reasons for Continued Detention,” may, at first glance, look convincing, but it must be stressed that, for the most part, it consists of little more than unreliable statements made by the prisoners’ fellow prisoners — either in Guantánamo, or in secret prisons run by the CIA, where torture and other forms of coercion were widespread, or through more subtle means in Guantánamo, where compliant prisoners who were prepared to make statements about their fellow prisoners were rewarded with better treatment. Some examples are available on the homepage for the release of these documents (cross-posted with links here).

With this in mind, it should be noted that there are good reasons why Obama administration officials, in the interagency Guantánamo Review Task Force established by the President to review the cases of the 241 prisoners still held in Guantánamo when he took office, concluded that only 36 could be prosecuted.

The final part of this section, “Detainee’s Conduct,” analyzes in detail how the prisoners have behaved during their imprisonment, with exact figures cited for examples of “Disciplinary Infraction.”

8. Detainee Intelligence Value Assessment

After reiterating the intelligence assessment at 3b and recapping on the prisoners’ alleged status, this section primarily assesses which areas of intelligence remain to be “exploited,” according to the Task Force.

9. EC Status

The final section notes whether or not the prisoner in question is still regarded as an “enemy combatant,” based on the findings of the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, held in 2004-05 to ascertain whether, on capture, the prisoners had been correctly labeled as “enemy combatants.” Out of 558 cases, just 38 prisoners were assessed as being “no longer enemy combatants,” and in some cases, when the result went in the prisoners’ favor, the military convened new panels until it got the desired result.


In addition, please find below the introductions that I wrote to three briefing documents that were put up on WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files page last week, to accompany the release of the prisoner files (which have now almost all been released). I also wrote the introduction to a classification document, which is not included here, because it is probably only of interest those who take a professional interest in the US military’s obsession with classification, but I hope that the three briefing documents provide a fascinating accompaniment to the prisoner files.

Cover Story Assessment

This document, a four-page briefing paper entitled, “Assessment of Afghanistan Travels and Islamic Duties as they Pertain to Interrogation,” was published in August 2004 and provides interrogators with information about the perceived activities of foreigners in Afghanistan, and the types of cover stories that were allegedly used on a regular basis by foreigners who had traveled there for jihad.

While this may well have proved useful in identifying individuals who were attempting to hide their true motives, it also undoubtedly contributed to an atmosphere in which everyone who claimed to be innocent was regarded as having been trained by al-Qaeda to resist interrogation, leading to confirmation bias, even if, as was the case with many of those held, they were indeed innocent.

EC Threat Indicators

This document, a 17-page briefing paper entitled, “JTF-GTMO Matrix of Threat Indicators for Enemy Combatants,” was intended to help interrogators “to determine a detainee‟s capabilities and intentions to pose a terrorist threat if the detainee were given the opportunity,” primarily through the use of three types of indicators: “1) the detainee himself provides acknowledgement of a fact; 2) another detainee, document, government, etc. provides an identification of the detainee; and 3) analysis of the detainee‟s timeline, activities, and associates in context with other known events and individuals.”

The document contains detailed lists of places where prisoners were captured, which are regarded as suspicious, and groupings of prisoners regarded as significant. It also includes signs allegedly indicating military training and fighting, indicators of membership in al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including travel routes and locations allegedly frequented by al-Qaeda members, and an analysis of what are regarded as common cover stories.

Also included are similar analyses regarding the Taliban or “Anti-Coalition Militia,” and a worryingly large list of “Associated Forces,” including relief organizations that were not regarded as a threat outside of Guantánamo, and the huge missionary organization Jama’at Al-Tablighi, which has millions of members worldwide, but which was routinely described in Guantánamo as a front for terrorist activities.

JTF-GTMO Threat Matrix

This two-page document, entitled, “JTF-GTMO Detainee Recommendation and Threat Matrix,” was published in May 2008 and explains the different categories of prisoners at Guantánamo, designated as high-risk, medium-risk and low-risk, and the recommendations for their disposition, which consist of “Continued Detention,” “Transfer Out of DoD Control,” and “Release.”

It should be noted that there is no category for innocent people seized by mistake, even though the documents themselves reveal that many of the prisoners were indeed seized by mistake, and were therefore no risk at all, although two of the definitions of a low-risk prisoner are that they “had little or no terrorist sponsored or related training” and that they “had few, if any, associations with terrorists, terrorist groups, or terrorist support networks.”

The document also includes the following alarming footnote about prisoners facing “Imminent Death”: “Medical prognosis indicating death within 6-12 months may be justification for humanitarian transfer.”

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Donna Nassor wrote:


  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Laila Lavely wrote:

    thanks. tried to share the link and apparently they have it censored. i tried posting it 3 times. finally i had to manipulate the link altogether and post it as a message, putting the second part of the link in front of the first. or at least they have it censored on “a million for julian assange” website. could not post at all.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I’m sharing and digging now. This will help to establish the historical record and, I hope, today’s media commentators, historians, and writers about current affairs.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Laila Lavely wrote:

    well, ironically it’s showing up now. nevermind. thanks for sharing.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    I read and posted ‘Normalising Evil.’ It is an important article, since many view the NYT as Scripture. As the article does, I compared it to the Guardian’s reporting.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Grace Caulfield wrote:

    Shared – thanks, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends, and thanks also to everyone who has shared it. There’s more to come this week, but in the meantime I hope, as George stated, that this “will help to establish the historical record.”

  8. Hannah K. O'Luthon says...

    Is there any chance that those responsible for the crimes committed at the “Camp No” torture center (as described in Seton Hall University report) will ever be brought to justice (with appropriate regard for due process)? This abomination seems to have been forgotten (or, more accurately, successfully swept under the carpet woven out of disinformation and deceit), but that stain on the American system of justice can not be washed away until some amazing grace allows those once blind to see.

  9. WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004 … » WeNewsIt says...

    […] persons who attended the Petroman College in Pakistan,” but, as I explained in a recent article, How to Read WikiLeaks’ Guantánamo Files (originally published on WikiLeaks’ website when the Guantánamo files were first published, as […]

  10. WikiLeaks and the Guantánamo Prisoners Released from 2002 to 2004 (All Ten Parts) – Andy Worthington « says...

    […] […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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